Secrets and Sins of Prologues

These days the mention of prologues often sparks debate in writer’s circles. Should they be avoided. How does a prologue earn its place. What elements should never be present. What absolutely has to be included. Do readers skip them. Will agents accept them.

Personally, I think anyone who says to never use a prologue is guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Still, that doesn’t mean that all prologues are created equal.

Four things prologues should never be used for:

  1. Substitution for a real beginning. This is a problem for stories with a weak narrative arc, or a narrative arc that doesn’t begin until after the 5% mark of the total work. Inserting a prologue to show the reader what is worth waiting for is a band-aid on a gaping wound. Think if you’ve ever heard, or been inspired to issue the complaint, “It’s a great idea but the writer missed the mark.” When you find that great idea within your own stories, you need to go back in subsequent drafts and build the story to highlight the great idea, no try to tack on the great idea to the first draft’s version of the narrative.
  2. Backstory that only appears in the prologue. If there is something the reader absolutely needs to know, the prologue is not the place for it. That doesn’t mean that backstory can’t be included in the prologue, just that it better appear in the main story as well, preferably in a way that is different but relates to how it was presented in the prologue.
  3. Information dumps. Having a prologue just to highlight how your universe works, or who a certain hero is, or anything else that involves showing off something you, as the creator, think is cool about your story – basically, information that has little context to a reader so early on – is not the route to go. Keep that in mind if you find yourself crafting a prologue, because it doesn’t mean you absolutely can’t give a reader information that is not relevant [yet] – it just means you have to be vigilant not to journey into the info dump wasteland.
  4. Highlight a minor character without making certain the reader knows it is not the main character. Bait and switches can be clever if done correctly, but that means it has to be designed as a bait and switch. A prologue is the first thing a reader will connect to, and if they connect very solidly to a minor character it can leave them feeling disappointed when they are introduced to your MC.

Three ways prologues can and should be used:

  1. Enhance audience’s knowledge in a way that immerses them in the fictional world. As an example, consider the opening scroll of every Star Wars movie.
  2. Tell something emotionally charged with the intention of jumping off from that emotion in the opening paragraphs of your first chapter.
  3. Give readers advance knowledge that will allow you, as the writer, to not have to work so hard in explaining why a character will react a certain way, or why something matters, later in the story.

Example of a prologue that does a lot of things effectively:

Take GRR Martin’s prologue for Game of Thrones – it’s really a prologue for the entire Song of Ice and Fire series. He introduces the idea that there is magic in the world, and that Benjen Stark was killed by a foul kind of magic creature North of the Wall. These things tell the reader, later, when they are reading about rumors and legends about the lands North of the Wall, that those tales might be more than a bedtime story for Westrosi children. It also demonstrates to the reader that characters can and will die on the page. When we meet Benjen’s extended family – the Starks – we already know something about them because we met their Uncle. When Jon heads to the Wall, we have some idea how serious that is. The prologue also contributed to the narrative tension of Robert calling Ned away from the North. In short, it presented the reader with just enough knowledge to relate to the world, yet was far from an info dump. It may not have been the most exciting or intriguing prologue ever written, but it did it’s job and then some.

What do you think of prologues? Do you use them in your writing? Have you ever read a prologue that made you want to put a book back on the shelf? What tips do you have for determining if a prologue is worth keeping? The comments are always open.

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